Hard work lifted Jason Garrison to NHL
Jason Garrison took the less travelled road to the National Hockey League, signing his first pro contract with the Florida Panthers as an undrafted free agent in 2008.
And it’s perhaps in part because he was a so-called late bloomer that the now 28-year-old Vancouver Canucks’ defenceman refuses to take his position for granted.
“I personally want to take my game to another level,” says the affable Garrison, who during midseason in the 2002-03 season was converted to defence from forward by his former Richmond Sockeyes’ coach Ron Johnson.
“Ultimately, every summer, I want to come into the next year feeling better than the last.”
Take skating, for example.
Though Garrison has always been a good skater, for the last several summers he’s honed that skill working out with fellow pros under the tutelage of renowned skating coach Derek Popke at the Vancouver Hockey School.
“There are always so many guys that want your spot,” Garrison reasons. “You have to not only maintain your skills but grow them. For me that happens in the summer, skating with these guys—a lot of whom are young and have a lot of energy and are trying to get to that next level. You can always be better no matter who you are.”
Clearly, Garrison appreciates and values the input he gets from Popke who he says “has a good mindset and knows his drills.” During a workout with a group of fellow pros earlier this week in Richmond, Garrison frequently stops to ask what he can do better.
“Ninety-nine per cent of players wait for feedback from you, whereas Jay will go through a drill and then explain what it felt like for him,” says Popke, who for three years worked with the Toronto Maple Leafs’ prospects (brought in by Leafs’ general manager Dave Nonis whose son formerly attended the Vancouver Hockey School) and also provided skating instruction to a trio of Stanley Cup winners—Willie Mitchell, Milan Lucic and Brent Seabrook.
“(Garrison exchanging ideas) is what separates him from the pack,” continues Popke. “When he goes through a drill he tells you what he thinks he’s doing wrong. By the two of us working together, that’s where you get the ultimate development and progression. He’s as much invested as a player as I am as a coach.”
Garrison is the epitome of a player who has made it through hard work and passion.
“He was not a kid when coming up (in minor hockey) who played on every rep team,” notes Popke. “He was actually a house player growing up, so if ever there was a kid who maybe would want to quit because he didn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel it was him. But through hard work he slowly made his way up to junior, where once again the same thing happened. He was not a Junior A player until 19 (joining the Nanaimo Clippers in 2003-04 after a season playing Junior B for the Sockeyes).
“A lot of kids, if they don’t make the Bantam A team, or at 16 and 17 if they haven’t made Junior A, give up,” says Popke. “This was a guy who didn’t make any of those teams but by working on details was able to achieve the ultimate goal. I think as a result that work ethic is engrained in him.”
After two seasons with the Clippers (for whom he scored 22 goals and 62 points in the 2004-05 season), Garrison was afforded the opportunity to further his education and hockey career by accepting an athletic scholarship to the University of Minnesota-Duluth. He decided to forego his final season of NCAA eligibility to turn pro in 2008-09, spending all but one game with the Panthers’ American Hockey League affiliate Rochester Americans for whom he scored eight goals and 35 points.
Garrison toiled in relative obscurity during his first three seasons with the Panthers, but broke out offensively in 2011-12 setting a franchise record for single-season goals by a defenceman with 16. The timing proved to be ideal, as Garrison became a sought-after free agent who signed a six-year contract with the Vancouver Canucks on July 1, 2012.
The chance to play for his hometown team was a dream come true, and Garrison feels fortunate the opportunity presented itself.
“It’s one of those things you don’t really think about too much until somebody asks you,” he explains. “Then you think, ‘yeah, that would be awesome.’ Obviously it was an exciting summer but it was different and I totally knew that coming in. Still, you never really fully appreciate or understand it until you’re there and so it was a learning experience.”
Under the constant scrutiny the Canuck must endure, Garrison scored eight goals and 16 points in 47 games as a Canuck last season. He had his ups and downs, but feels he learned a lot and is looking forward to the 2013-14 season under new head coach John Tortorella.
“The main goal is to win, and sometimes a change is good,” he says. “I think it will be positive. (Tortorella) brings a lot of energy, a lot of experience and a different set of dynamics. We’re excited.”
Though ice hockey was his main sport growing up in White Rock, Garrison also participated in such activities as rugby, basketball and roller hockey.
“I think it’s good as a kid to play different sports,” he says. “For me it was about having fun and being with my friends while also obviously learning. My parents were always very good and offered positive encouragement. I think every parent wants their kids to do better, but I think it’s important to allow them to be (themselves). I played because I was having fun. I was never mentally exhausted.”
Popke says every young player and their parents can learn from Garrison’s journey.
“There’s so much pressure to play at the highest level growing up, but it doesn’t have anything to do with making the NHL,” he says. “Hard work is part of a skillset. You can teach kids to skate, stickhandle and score, but it’s also important—and a challenge—to teach them how to work hard.”
Garrison clearly loves being a member of the Canucks and even before his debut last season was already embracing the opportunity to represent the team at numerous community events. And he never passes up an autograph request. It’s these qualities that make him a consummate pro and why he’s quickly become a ‘hometown’ favourite.